Title: Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt
Author: Talitha Koum
Spoilers: Recent episodes.
Rating: PG-13 for mild language.
Word Count: 3000+
Disclaimer: Really?

Happy 23rd, everyone! Here's to a happy season 4!

ooo

A flash of red. Darkness. Another flash of red. Penny opened her eyes to find herself locked in the same, riveted capsule as before. Wasn't she just kissing Sheldon? Of all the bad timings. What would he think once he realized she had fallen asleep on him?

It was when Penny began making up excuses that had nothing to do with alternate universes where Sheldon may or may not be alive (Because, let's face it, she thought. He'd think I'd lost my mind.) that she noticed she wasn't alone.

Sheldon was there with her.

"Oh my God!" Penny squealed without a noise. "Sheldon!"

This was her chance. She could show him where he was. She could prove she wasn't insane.

Yeah. Like none of this was absolutely insane.

Sheldon's head lolled on his shoulder, his arms limp at his sides. Penny reached for him-

She fazed through his chest. Her skin burned and numbed and shriveled before her eyes.

Penny stuck her fingers in her mouth. So much worse than ice. Liquid nitrogen. Afraid of what she would see, she took a peek at the damage. Her hands looked like tree bark, cracked and flaking. She would have screamed if she hadn't witnessed some sort of skin rejuvenation returning her palms, her wrists, her knuckles, her fingers, back to normal in a matter of seconds.

Penny edged closer to Sheldon on her knees. She hovered over his face and she winced at the waves of cold emitting from him.

What was going on?

"Sheldon?"

Nothing. No sound, no response.

"Sheldon!"

Still nothing.

"Damn it, Sheldon, wake up!" Penny took off her shoe and threw it at him. Through him. She threw her other shoe for good measure. Not because she thought it would work, but because she was pissed.

Penny stood. She looked through the circular window. Same, dark room. Same chair. Same…Sheldon. Same, faceless dentist hunched over his patient. But something was different. The man in the lab coat wasn't preening, calm and calculated. He was checking Sheldon's vital signs with long, pale fingers, ripping readouts from a machine that was blinking and buzzing and making all sorts of noise.

"He's alive…" she heard a familiar voice murmur. The man in the lab coat jumped for joy. "He's alive!"

No.

It couldn't be.

"Hey!" Penny shouted, forgetting it wouldn't do any good. She waved her arms, dreading the moment she would start to feel sluggish and fade away, back to Pasadena. I'm not through yet, Penny told herself. "I'm not through yet!" Louder, "I'M NOT!"

Her voice was so small. A tiny hum, far away.

Penny took a deep, deep breath and screamed. She could hear herself more clearly, a boisterous thought transforming into a quiet word, growing louder and louder until the window rattled with her: "NO!"

The man in the lab coat stopped what he was doing, his expression shadowed in the dark. He hesitated, set the readouts on Sheldon's chest, and worked his way around the chair. His stride was cautious and careful like…

It couldn't be!

The man in the lab coat peered through the window.

"Sheldon?"

"Who are you?" he asked, his voice muffled behind the glass. "How did you get in there?"

Penny could only gape. How is this-? How can I-? What about-? Three Sheldons?

No, she corrected herself. Two Sheldons. The Sheldon in the lab coat was not her Sheldon.

Penny grit her teeth. "You need to help him. He's dying."

The Sheldon in the lab coat sniffed. "On the contrary. He's very much alive."

"Wha-no he's not! I swear to God, Sheldon, if you don't get me out of here, I'll call your sister!"

He didn't budge.

"I'll…" Penny blurted the first thing that came to her mind, "I'll call Leonard! I'll tell him what you're up to!"

Sheldon wrenched open the wall-the door-and stood in the threshold. "I knew it!" He snatched Penny off her feet and pulled her outside, leaving what was left of her Sheldon to dissolve on the floor. Penny tried to shrug him off, but he was strong. Stronger than she expected. He pulled her away from both Sheldons to stand a ways in the pitch-black laboratory. "You're a spy! Leonard sent you!"

Penny wanted to deny it, but she had a feeling he wouldn't believe her. What? Was she married to Leonard in this universe? Who was she, here? The mistrust, the hatred, she saw in Sheldon's eyes seemed to suggest otherwise.

Penny's rage tapered off. "Do you not know me?"

Sheldon looked flabbergasted. "No," he said in a tone that made her feel stupid.

"Are you sure?"

"I have an eidetic memory. I would know if I knew you."

Penny groaned. Her head was pounding. Her heart was pounding. Everything was pounding. The room, the Sheldon who held her in his arms, pulsating around the edges. And the noise! A loud THOOM. THOOM. THOOM. Clogging her ears, making her choke. Penny felt like she was sinking. She stood firm, however. She pushed Sheldon back toward the light, toward the cylinder-like machine he had yanked her from, except she slipped right through him.

"Are you a ghost, too?" Penny asked tentatively. Damn, everywhere she went...

Sheldon stared at her, his eyes wide. "Me?" he shrilled. He sputtered something about how he didn't believe in ghosts and blah, blah, blah.

Penny tuned him out. She lifted her hands in front of her face. She was translucent.

This was, like, an out of body experience for real. The THOOMing returned, persistent and somewhat reminiscent of a voice saying: COME. She batted the noise away from her ears, her headache worsening. She had the urge to give in, to let go. Was this what it was like, resisting the lure of death, disembodied as she was? She wondered how Sheldon managed three years of this torture. And for what? To meet the her of his universe?

Her heart ached for him.

And then it didn't. It burned, bright and blazing. She was going to save him come Hell or high water.

Penny clenched her hands into fists. "My name is Penny," she told the Sheldon in the lab coat. "You don't know me yet, but you will." She paused. "I'm in love with you."

The most disgusted expression fluttered across Sheldon's face. "You're lying. You're here to steal my invention. Well! You can't have it. So there." He stormed past Penny and stood in front of the cylinder where Sheldon's spirit faded with every second. He smiled a smug smile. "Do you have any idea? This is paradigm altering! The world as we know it will change forever."

Penny asked, "What is it?"

"But of course your feeble, little mind can't grasp the concept of-"

Penny pursed her lips. "Try me."

Sheldon was all too happy to explain. He gestured to the cylinder beside the chair and then gestured to an identical cylinder across the room. "The construct of teleportation never suited my fancy," he said. "To destroy yourself in one location and reconstruct yourself in another, in Layman's terms, but how could I destroy genius? No." He shook his head. "I wasn't willing to sacrifice the greatest mind of the times. I tweaked the premise, instead."

Penny glanced from one cylinder to the other. "So, like, cloning?"

"Yes, Penny," Sheldon said snidely. "Like cloning, only, like, faster."

"Hey!" She pointed a threatening finger at him. "Don't make me haunt you."

He flinched, suddenly interested in a wrinkle in her Sheldon's pants. He smoothed it out. "As you can see, I was successful. Only…"

"Only?" Penny probed.

"Only he's lifeless. His vitals? Perfect. His brainwave activity? Beautiful. Not as beautiful as mine, but beautiful nonetheless." Sheldon sighed. "He's a vegetable."

Penny approached the chair. The Sheldon in the lab coat didn't seem to mind her incursion for now, but she was careful not to draw too much attention to herself with any gasping or cursing. She stood by her Sheldon's side, across from the Sheldon in the lab coat. She grinned at the sight of him breathing, his chest rising and falling. His eyes, though. They were dead, startlingly black. She couldn't stand it. She was used to a passion for science. And, maybe, for her.

Penny closed his eyes. She leaned down and kissed him on the eyelid.

"What are you doing?" The Sheldon in the lab coat scurried around toward her, shooing her off. He grabbed a box of disinfectant wipes from under the chair and cleaned her Sheldon's face.

"I told you. I love him."

Sheldon huffed.

"And, by the way? That's not a clone. All you did was snatch the body of another Sheldon from an alternate universe."

"Impossible. You're lying."

"You keep saying that! Why would I lie?"

"You want the Nobel for yourself!"

"Okay." Penny whistled low. "I'm pretty sure you've been cooped up in this room for way too long so let me lay it out for you real simple. We're either going to do this the hard way, or my way. If I were you, I'd pick the hard way."

Sheldon studied her with dubious eyes. "What do these ways entail?"

"The hard way? You kiss your Nobel good-bye, stand aside, and I'll take Sheldon back where he belongs. My way? I make you let me take him back where he belongs." Penny unbuckled her Sheldon's restraints. She exhaled heavily through her nose when the Sheldon in the lab coat grabbed her again. "Okay, um, one? You got away with that the first time 'cause you're lucky. Two? Keep your hands to yourself or you'll wish you'd never been born."

His grip tightened. "I'm throwing you out. I don't know who you are or where you came from, but you are hereby banished from my laboratory."

Banished? What th' Hell kind of crap is that?

Penny outright punched Sheldon in the nose.

"GAH!" He wailed. "I'm bleeding!"

Penny finished unbuckling Sheldon's restraints and pulled him out of the chair. He was heavier than she thought he would be. She grabbed him by his wrists and started pulling him toward her cylinder when the Sheldon in the lab coat reappeared, a crossbow in his hands.

"D-Don' moob!" he stammered. Blood trickled down his chin. He aimed the arrow at her Sheldon's chest. "Stob o' I shoob."

"Look, I-"

"Don' speag! Leb im' go."

Penny dropped Sheldon's arms. She looked over her shoulder where his soul hadn't moved, flickering out. Penny turned around again, desperate. "Please," she begged. "Please, won't you reconsider?" She slowly inched her way around to shield her Sheldon, her soul buzzing uncontrollably. She winced at her aching head. "I know you're good. You have to be good."

"No," the Sheldon in the lab coat insisted. "I'm not. Go back where you came from."

"Not. Without. Sheldon."

He lowered his crossbow. "I don't understand."

"You will."

ooo

Penny opened her eyes. The sun shone bright through Sheldon's window…books on the shelves and the comics…playing off the plastic.

Penny squinted. She rolled over on her side and stifled a scream when she saw Sheldon lying next to her.

Had she...?

Penny cupped her hand over his mouth. His breath warmed her fingers. "Sheldon!" she whispered. "Sheldon! You're alive!"

He snored.

She didn't blame him.

Penny braced herself on her elbows. She touched Sheldon's cheek.

Holy, she thought.

He was warm and there and alive! She squealed, giddy, and continued to play with his features, waiting for him to wake up. "Sheldon…" she teased. "Wake-y, wake-y, eggs and bac-y." Which gave her an idea. "Oh, I'm totally making you breakfast with all the fixin's." She kicked her legs excitedly and got up to leave.

ooo

Sheldon was by himself in the middle of nowhere. He lifted his hand toward the sky. Blue and bright and more bright.

Through his parted fingers slipped rays of the sun. He could feel their heat against his palm. He curled his fingers into a tight fist as if he could keep the feeling.

The sound of his name resonated. "Sheldon! You're alive!"

Light, gentle, caressing, barely touching his face. Warm fingertips on his temple. They trickled over his eyelids, down his cheeks, hesitating before tracing his mouth. A kind nail pulled his bottom lip against his chin. And he breathed.

Sheldon opened his eyes. He saw Penny walking away from him. He saw Penny open the door to his bedroom. Something about breakfast.

"Wait," he slurred. It was hard to speak.

Penny turned around.

"Oh, dear."

She jumped on him. For someone who hadn't been able to feel anything for over three years, Penny was heavy. He groaned, "Careful!"

She kissed him quickly, giving him a little buzz on his mouth, sighing blissfully at the warmth. "Hey, you."

And. Oh. Sheldon gripped the bed sheets tight. Penny's lips on his was comparatively mind numbing. His every nerve exploded, ringing and sparking and, and he felt like he had caught on fire starting from the tips of his toes, up his legs, up his chest, and over his head. He couldn't think. It was wonderfully miserable. Fantastically wretched.

All of this-all of these feelings-came upon him like a tidal wave in the split second Penny kissed him. Any more of that and he would pass out. Or die. It was electrifying and discomforting just how quickly he was willing to renegotiate with himself. Penny now, death later.

He was losing it.

"Penelope," Sheldon gasped. "Please get off me. I'm very sore."

"Well, duh. You've been dead for three years." She kissed him again and, just as he feared, it was deeper. Slower. Longer. Ten times worse. Sheldon meat to complain, but Penny took advantage of his attempt to speak, teasing him to kiss her back and pressing closer. The bottom fell out. What bottom? Where had this bottom been before? Where had it gone? Was it coming back? These questions-so aggravating, so important-were inconsequential. He sank in the mind-numbing, heat-stoking, toe-curling pleasure. His body ached with it. Every muscle, every joint. Penny was heavy, but she was warm and soft. He moaned. It hurt too much.

Penny asked, "Whoa, are you okay?"

"No, I'm not okay!" he yelped. His body relaxed and his grip on his bed sheets loosened. "I can't move."

"You aren't paralyzed, are you?"

"No. I don't think so. I just have to readjust to, well, living." He tried to sit up, but failed.

"Sit still. I'll make you breakfast."

Sheldon paled. "Don't go to the store."

Penny snorted. "If you promise not to take a shower."

He didn't even have to think about it. "No. Nevermind. I trust you not to ride a bike down the middle of the street with your hands off of the handlebars and your eyes closed."

"Oh, really?"

Sheldon made a squeaky noise. He sounded like a kicked puppy.

"Chill. I'm not going anywhere."

"Penny?' Sheldon asked before she could leave again. "Will you bring me mouthwash?"

She did not.

ooo

"Dude, I don't think this is right, breaking into a woman's apartment."

"Penny will never know we were here. Her car's not in the parking lot. She's probably at work."

"What're we looking for, exactly?"

"Proof that Sheldon pulled the wool over our eyes." Leonard flashed Raj his camera. "Proof that he's still alive." He cracked opened Sheldon's bedroom door. He wasn't fully prepared for what he saw inside. Penny was sitting on the end of Sheldon's bed, staring down at a chessboard that was set on someone's lap. Namely, Sheldon. Sheldon's lap. She moved her black knight half-heartedly and then went back to filing her nails.

"Fascinating," Sheldon hummed. "Your moves make no sense. I can't tell what you're thinking."

Penny started, buffing her nails on her shirt. "What?"

Sheldon blinked at her disbelievingly. "Nevermind." He captured her piece.

Penny moved her queen's castle in the midst of Sheldon's defenses. "I don't see why you're making me play against you when we both know you're going to win."

"I didn't see why you had to force feed me an omelet when it's clearly Oatmeal Day. Check."

Penny feigned leaving him.

Sheldon whined, "Penny! My cognitive functions-"

Thud.

Sheldon and Penny looked up to see Leonard standing in the doorway, his camera on the floor and his mouth hanging open.

There was a long, awkward silence.

Finally, Sheldon took his white Queen and slid it across the board. "Checkmate."

ooo

Dr. Sheldon Cooper shoved his hands deep in his coat pockets. The night was chilly, a week's worth of rain blocking out the sun and giving the city streets a gloomy, you'll-never-see-the-sky-again sort of feel that made everyone look and act like the near-faceless characters in Edward Hopper's paintings. Coats wrapped tightly, hats low-brimmed, shoes sloshing through the puddles.

Sheldon sighed. He could be holding a Nobel in his hands. He could be a household name. He should be. But he wasn't.

Damn that woman.

Sheldon lost himself, wondering father and farther away from his lab, unsure of where he was going, but determined to get there, wherever it was. His was always a curious mind so he allowed his feet to take him where they would. He had nowhere to be. His schedule was ruined and his mind was otherwise occupied reconstructing a new one for himself, mathematically formulating the inner-workings of she who called herself Penny, and counting his steps.

The glow of street lights on the wet pavement. The flash of cars speeding him by. The reflection of reds and greens and yellows in his peripheral vision, giving his walk a kaleidoscopic aura. And it was within these colors, these equations, the feel of the moisture in the air clinging to his skin, that he saw her.

She was standing under an awning for shelter. She was accompanied by two other women. One, voluptuous and redheaded. One with be-speckled eyes as sharp and sultry as silk on steel. The woman in question wore nothing more than what looked like an over-sized t-shirt, only it clung to her every curve, as red as her lipstick in rouge. Her mascara was thick and blotched. She held a cigarette in her hand. The cherry burned as bright as her smile.

She saw him. Her smile widened, almost predatory.

Penny.

She turned, put out her hand, and asked him to dance.

Sheldon knew nothing of romance, but it was love at second sight.

The End

A/N: Thanks for reading, those of you who ignored the potentially awful summary of this story. I had fun writing so I hope you had fun reading. Yay for happy endings.